Cigar Aficionado

Rocky Road -- Our Man's Journey Into the World of Boxing

Volume Four: Fight Night
The unmistakable aroma of a dozen burning cigars perfumed the room, the lights burned bright and the crowd chanted my last name.

It was time.

I stood in the small dressing room at X-Fit, the gym where I had spent the past four months learning to box under the guidance of owner and head trainer Jimmy Fusaro, my mentor in this vision quest. My hands, normally enveloped in thick training wraps, were crisscrossed with gauze and tape, just like a prizefighter's. I was wearing black boxing shoes, a black Cigar Aficionado T-shirt and a pair of black trunks with a gold stripe. Sixteen-ounce gloves covered my hands, my mouthpiece was in place and leather headgear sat on my skull. I dipped and stretched, throwing shadow punches at the wall.

It was May 29. Over the previous 16 weeks I had put in some 50 hours with Jimmy, boxed hundreds of rounds, done thousands of push-ups and even more crunches. I punched and was punched, was bruised and even bled. And now I was going to show off my newfound skills in front of 50 people.

The fight was supposed to be held at a downtown gym that holds white-collar bouts a few times a year, but it was scheduled for May 22, the night of the New York Big Smoke, something I couldn't miss. The gym ended up canceling the fight altogether, and Jimmy stepped in, setting up his own little white collar boxing exhibition at X-Fit.

X-Fit is Jimmy's pride and joy. It's not really a gym -- it's a one-on-one training facility, with appointment-only training, rather than memberships. A former pro middleweight boxer and kick boxer, he had trained people like myself at New York gyms such as Equinox before setting out on his own. X-Fit has the hard-core gear for a boxing fanatic, right down to the boxing ring commanding center stage in the room, without the seedy charm of most boxing facilities. It was clean, well lit and comfortable. Unless, of course, someone was hitting you.

Jimmy had never thrown an opening party, so he intended to kill a few birds with one stone, turning this into my boxing night plus a party for his friends and clients, complete with drinks. I supplied the cigars.

Smoke used to be as much a fixture in boxing halls as heavy bags and jump ropes, but today puffing and pugilism are a dying combination. I welcomed the thought of competing in a smoky room. Hell, I smoke cigars every day, so I would be in my natural element. And I'd be able to have one as soon as I finished.

Originally, I was supposed to fight someone as green as myself, but that plan was scratched, and I found myself sharing the dressing room with Joe Jingoli, a 45-year-old owner of a construction company with nine years of experience in the ring. Joe, a cigar smoker himself, had sparred once with heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney, and had lived to tell the tale.

Sounds like an unfair fight, but this was an exhibition, meaning there would be no judge to determine a winner or loser. The two of us were expected to work, in boxing parlance. Imagine an uptempo version of a sparring match. That meant we'd be throwing punches -- hard ones, sure -- but not head-hunting for a knockout. Fine by me.

Jimmy called from inside the ring. Bring out the fighters.

We walked out of the dressing room to the cheers of the crowd and climbed into the ring. It was dark outside, and the huge windows of X-Fit were black backdrops behind the raised ring. Friends, family and co-workers stood in the audience, including my wife, Manuela, my boss, Gordon Mott and even my college buddy Eric from Boston. The crowd was bursting with energy, fueled by the open bar and the prospect of seeing a friend get his ass kicked in public.

Why did I sign up for this?

I wasn't as nervous as I had been two hours prior, sitting in my office, waiting to walk across town to the gym. I didn't think I would be knocked out, but I was thinking about my nose, which had leaked blood the last time I sparred. I didn't mind a little blood, but I wondered if the damn thing would break. I had never broken my nose before.

Jimmy introduced us, calling me a svelte 215 pounds. I was the same weight as when I started training, but it was better weight. My pot belly had shrunk, and while I was still far from a six-pack my gut was pretty hard. My arms were stronger, too, my chest a little bigger, and I think I actually saw a bit of muscle sprouting on my toothpick-sized calves. (I had contemplated stuffing bocce balls in my socks to try to emulate the look of real calves, but decided against it.)

I had 10 pounds and 10 years on Joe, but it really wasn't going to help me. He had a bald head and a black mouthpiece, giving him a sinister look. He was wearing his own headgear, which was held together by silver duct tape, and looked as if it had been through wars. In a pool hall, the guy who brings in his own cue stick is either a shark or an idiot. In a boxing gym, someone who brings in his own gear ought to be good. Joe was good.

The buzzer rang, and Joe and I met in the center of the ring, trading a pair of jabs. Joe's fist hit hard, pushing my head back. I jabbed, jabbed, jabbed, mixing in the occasional right cross and left hook. For the past month of training, Jimmy had stressed the importance of my jab, and had me work round after round using only that left-handed, leading punch. I would jab for three minutes straight, rest for a minute, then jab again and again until my shoulder burned.

I'm not sure if it was the crowd or the adrenaline, but I was throwing more punches than I usually do. We traded blows, staying in the center of the ring, Joe circling, me following. Soon, I could hear my heavy breaths echoing in my ears, the sound augmented by the restrictive headgear.

A common misconception in boxing: headgear protects. Against head butts, sure. Against a right cross, no way. I felt every punch, no matter where it hit. And much of my face remained exposed, including my nose -- which Joe peppered freely with punches -- and my chin. And my eyes.

A first-round punch from Joe -- I think it was a right cross -- landed square in my left eye. It hurt, and the eye was cloudy for several seconds. It's a black eye for sure, I thought, taking a half step back. My vision didn't clear entirely until round's end. (You looked mad after round one, my wife would tell me later. That wasn't anger, I answered, that was pain.)

The buzzer rang, and the crowd cheered as we walked to our corners. They liked the show so far. Now to keep it up.

Jimmy was my cornerman, and he smiled and held up a water bottle as I walked over. Keep doing what you're doing, he said, then gave me a generous gulp of cold water and squirted a good dose on my head to cool me down.

I had a minute to stand and rest. (Jimmy, ever the tough coach, provided no stools for the three-round fight.) I looked at Joe, who stood in the opposite corner. He was standing casually, arms draped over the ring ropes. I mimicked his pose. Behind me, I heard the cameraman, colleague Michael Moretti, ask Jimmy how I was doing. Not bad, he said, then chuckled: Better than I thought he would.

I fought a better round two. I landed a good right, and what I thought was a pretty impressive three-punch combo, a left jab followed by a decent right cross completed with a left hook to the head.

Going into the training, my biggest worry was looking like an idiot in the ring, or being so out of my league that I was clobbered and knocked senseless by the first punch. I was doing OK. Jimmy's training had paid dividends. Before I knew it, I was in the corner again, more water on my head, another smile from Jimmy, round three about to start.

Remember, we had a game plan, so stick with it, he said.

I had also worried about losing my focus. In my very limited time boxing, I had never had much of an audience. I thought I might get distracted by the dozens of people around the ring, by the cheers and jeers, by the look on my wife's face as my opponent landed a crushing blow. But focusing was easy. All I saw during the fight was Joe's face and fists. I found it very easy to concentrate -- had I not, I would have ended up on my back, looking at the lights.

Then it was over. Jimmy removed my headgear and the audience cheered for the show. The referee raised our hands and we mugged for the cameras.

Four months of training for six minutes of fighting. I felt like a king.

I climbed out of the ring, a sweaty mess. (My wife still kissed me. What a trooper.) Standing there was Gordon, who had a cigar in his mouth and a leather case in his hand.

Would you like a cigar, Dave? he asked.

Oh yeah. I hadn't smoked a cigar all day.

Gordon handed me a well-aged Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Imperial with a silky wrapper. It was the perfect reward, and I lit up right there, with Jimmy and Joe. Soon after, I was draining a pint of ale and eating the first French fries I'd had in months.

Early the next day, I walked into the office, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigar case in the other. I sat at my desk and pulled out a dark cigar.

It was from Joe. Like soccer players who swap jerseys after a match, we exchanged cigars after our fight. My gift to him was an Ashton VSG Robusto, something he had never tried. Joe, a dedicated lover of Cuban cigars, gave me a Bolivar Royal Corona that he had recently acquired.

It's 8:15 a.m. For the past third of a year, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday has been a training day. No fatty lunch with the boys. No donuts at the production meetings. And no cigars before a workout.

I sit at my desk and take the Bolivar from my case, admiring it before I light. Its wrapper is dark, rich brown and silky, very firm to the touch. It takes to the flame beautifully, the draw exquisite.

My nose is sore, and it has a two-inch mark of light red along the right side. My eye didn't turn black, but the bone beneath it is tender from the punch that hit it so pure. I'm bone-tired from the workout last night and the four hours of sleep I'm running on, but inside I feel as if I could stop a bullet. Last night was an experience I'll take to my grave.

Jimmy turned me into a boxer.

Photos by Jean Schwarzwalder

Video by Michael Moretti

Design by Edison León and Miguel Nuñez

Lessons at X-Fit are $70 per hour. To learn more about X-Fit, call 212-725-7991.

Read the complete Rocky Road collection and feel the burn:

Volume One: The Beginning

Volume Two: Getting Hit

Volume Three: Sparring